Indigenous-owned forests felled for oil palm in Keerom

Down to Earth No 78  August 2008

Plans to push ahead with oil palm expansion in Papua have run into opposition from local people.

Two recent reports from the Evangelical Christian Church in Papua (GKI di Tanah Papua), about a plantation development in Keerom, around 60 km from Papua's provincial capital of Jayapura, raise serious concerns about the impacts of such projects on indigenous Papuans and their natural resources. The following information is based on the two reports, one Indonesian-language and one English1, with additional information from media reports.

Indonesia's Rajawali Group, is developing a 26,000 ha plantation in the area, on land owned by indigenous communities. Governor Suebu visited one of the project sites at Yetti on March 5th to promote the development, despite calls from local people to stop the project. The company has already cleared 800 hectares of land for its oil palm nursery.

A few weeks after the governor's visit, members of the Yetti community managed to bring work at the project site to a halt by confiscating keys of bulldozers and an excavator belonging to the plantation company. According to an April report by KPKC (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Desk) GKI, they demanded that the company to fulfil its promise to pay compensation before continuing with the work.



Rajawali had earlier been generous with its promises. It said it would build a hospital and school, help asphalt the road and provide clear water, and build housing and provide electricity for villagers. The land would be contracted for 30 years, during which outsiders would be brought in to do the work, while local people would receive the benefits. The company would set up a cooperative, which could later be managed by local people themselves.

In August last year, the company also flew several community leaders including two customary leaders (Ondoafi), a protestant clergyman and a youth leader, to South Kalimantan, via Jakarta, to view the company's oil palm plantations there. They spent two nights in Jakarta on the way back. They were each given Rp1 million (around USD 110) each to spend during the trip. Upon their return, these leaders tried to convince the community that oil palm clearly did bring progress for local landowners. But local people had already witnessed the negative social impacts of the nucleus estate/smallholder plantations in Arso, nearby.

The development has caused tensions within the community between those for and those against the project, but eventually, in February this year, the Ondoafi signed over the land on the condition that the company would make a 'sweetener' payment. The company agreed and told the community to open a bank account with Bank Papua in Keerom.

The company's management confirmed its promise to pay five villages again during governor Suebu's visit on March 5th, but this still had not been paid up to the time of the protest action on March 25th.

Villages in this area are classed as living below the poverty line, which is why some local people readily transferred their land and forests to Rajawali. There is also a strong military presence in the area, which is close to the PNG border: 8 military checkpoints on the road from Muara Tami to Yetti.

The area leased to Rajawali is, at present, the only remaining forest along the Yetti road. Every day, military trucks can be seen taking out timber for export. Chainsaws can be heard from dawn till dusk. Local people are paid Rp300,000 (around USD33) for each cubic metre of wood brought out of the forest.

A separate GKI report, which includes interviews with local people, provides further evidence that this development is being pushed through despite serious local concern. Father John Jongga, a former pastor in Waris, Keerom district, said he was asked by Arso tribal leaders in July last year to inform Governor that the people of Keerom do not approve the plan to use their land for palm oil, but would rather have cocoa plantations. "However the Governor has already made a deal with the giant he insisted on implementing his plan."

Frans Jibu, a customary Arso leader said Indonesian intelligence agents had prevented him from expressing community concerns directly to the governor during his visit in July 2007 and that the military had handed over the land on the people's behalf. "We, the people who own the land do not accept the government's plan...To me this is identical with an annihilation process."

Mama Sarafina, a women's leader from Arso, said it was now difficult to find clean water and shrimps had been wiped out due to pollution from oil palm fertilisers. "Soon our protected forests between East Arso and Papua New Guinea will be cleared for palm oil...If the buffer zone is cleared, we will fight against it because it is the last resource for us to make gardens, go hunting, get our traditional medicines." She also pointed to the fact that forests are being cleared while non-forested land stands idle: "Why are thousands of hectares of land in Arso left empty and why not use that land for palm oil plantation?"


History of transmigration and oil palm

Keerom district was established as a separate district in 2002. As mentioned in the KPKC report, it includes Arso, site of one of the big transmigration areas linked to plantations, imposed on Papua by Jakarta during the Suharto era. Under these schemes, families from Java, Madura and East Nusa Tenggara were brought in to work the plantations. The only option offered to indigenous landowners was to hand their land over and become 'local transmigrants'.2

Oil palm plantations were first set up in Keerom in the mid-1980s and the area has been targeted for expansion since then. In 1999, for example, a 102,000 hectare development was announced for the Arso transmigration area, to be developed by state-owned PT Perkebunan Nusantara II.3 However, according to Indonesia's Investment Coordinating Board, only 6,000 hectares of oil palm had been developed by 2007 in the whole of Keerom district. Officially 100,000ha remains available for the crop.4

Rajawali Group says that "local land rights will be respected" but it is difficult to see how this can be done when all their land has been signed over for plantations. The company says local people can make a living from logging while forest is being cleared for the plantations, but once the forest cleared, this source of income will dry up. Indigenous communities are already complaining that animals are harder to hunt and less sago is available.

Meanwhile in Arso, transmigrants are unhappy with the low price that the state-plantation company PT Perkebunan II in Arso is giving them for their palm fruits.5 The Rajawali Group decided to invest more in plantations and mining last year. The company already controls 100,000 hectares of oil-palm plantations in East and South Kalimantan. The group, owned by businessman Peter Sondakh, also has coal mines in East Kalimantan.6



Foker has released a film documenting the dispute over the new oil palm plantation in Keerom. The film is part of a long term campaign called 'Save the People and Forests of Papua', which aims to secure real involvement for Papuans in decisions affecting their natural resources. For contact details see


Police shoot Papuan dead at Indigenous Peoples Day rally

The Institute for Papuan Advocacy & Human Rights has reported that Indonesian police shot dead one man and injured others at a rally in Wamena, on August 9th. The rally was held to mark the International Day of the World's Indigenous People.

According to IPAHR, around 20,000 people attended the rally, at which four flags were raised, including the Indonesian flag and the banned Morning Star flag - symbol of the independence movement. Police reportedly started firing shots into nearby buildings and onto the ground near the crowd, killing one man, Opinus Tabuni. Two others were reported to be seriously injured. IPAHR said it appeared that the police wanted to provoke a conflict, as many Papuans attending the rally were carrying traditional weapons.

(Source: IPAHR Media Release 10/Aug/08)
For more information on Indigenous People's Day see


1 PT Raja Wali Tidak Tepati Janji, Warga Yetti Palang Lahan Kelapa Sawit, 29/Apr/08, and Papuan People lose hope to fight Palm Oil Plantation [no date], forwarded by FWPC UK. Both reports by KPKC GKI Tanah Papua (Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Desk, Evangelical Christian Church in Papua. 
2 See DTE's special report on transmigration of 2001, Indonesia's transmigration programme: an update, for more background on the scheme.
3 See DTE 42, August 1999
4 See table in DTE 75 page 2 or
5 Keerom district government website at; 3/Apr/08; Kompas 12/May/07;Cenderawasih Pos, 13/Feb/08
6 Antara 16/Jun/07